Some clients get caught in a cycle of hopelessness despite being driven and successful. Feeling unfulfilled with life, they set goals to achieve. “When I get that”, they tell themself, “then I’ll be happy.”
Eventually, they achieve the goal. But despite all that effort and success, the promised fulfilment doesn’t occur. They slip into depression until they find another idea. The “when I get that, then I’ll be happy” cycle begins again.
Yet each time they get it, the happiness doesn’t arrive. They feel more and more depressed and hopeless. No matter how hard they try to get what they truly want, they fail to get it. Life begins to feel pointless. Each of their goals feels like a false promise and they start to give up.
In this article, I’ll break down what may be going on here and how to work with a client stuck in this cycle.
I will look at:
- The Problem
- The Core Tension
- The Target Learning
The problem is best broken into two parts: what is happening now, and how they want it to be instead.
Rather than an abstract conversation, ask the client to describe an actual situation where this manifests.
In this situation, the client may describe a scenario where they feel hopeless and unfulfilled. They set an external goal that would result in fulfilment. When they reach that goal, they feel as hopeless as before.
In terms of what they want instead, perhaps they say: “I want to already feel fulfilled inside so I don’t have to keep looking for it.”
It is worth noting both what the client wants, and also the payoff feelings they keep getting from their current strategy. They want to feel fulfilled inside so they don’t have to keep looking for it. At the same time, they keep getting feelings of hopelessness and depression when they try and fulfilment doesn’t arrive.
We can ask what they would like instead of feelings of hopelessness and depression. When therapy is completed successfully, what feelings would they like instead?
Perhaps they tell us that they would feel content and optimistic about life.
The core tension
The core tension is the tug of war between what they want yet don’t feel fully safe to have.
In this case, the client wants to feel fulfilled, content and optimistic about life. They are deeply motivated to get there. Not only do they work hard to develop plans. They strive to achieve them. They are also spending their precious time talking to a therapist in a bid to solve the issue.
How is it that all of the client’s best efforts to feel fulfilled are bearing no fruit?
Bruce Ecker conceptualises this as “the pro symptom position.” I’m not a fan of the word ‘symptom’ for such things. But Ecker is expressing the idea that it makes sense somehow for us to keep the current problem. This problem stops us from getting a worse problem.
The question to explore in therapy is how and why the current problem makes sense to keep.
In this case, according to Ecker’s formulation, this client is working hard to get something that is too scary to get. “I am desperate to get there. But if I do, I’m screwed!”
It makes sense that they keep failing to win fulfilment and get depression instead. But why?
The target learning
Memory reconsolidation is a brain mechanism that erases old learning, so creates transformational change. For therapists seeking to trigger the mechanism, we need to identify the target learning to erase.
Only then can we intentionally create meaningful mismatch experiences that trigger it.
A good way to explore the target learning is through The Single Sentence Technique. We help the client identify how the current problem serves them somehow.
It can seem a strange and counter-intuitive question. Yet clients begin to connect with the various benefits that come with not changing.
The technique also inquires about the costs of change. All change comes at a price. Even writing this article has cost some time. What is the cost of feeling fulfilled and hopeful? What are the downsides of being that person? If they could wave a magic wand and become the person who no longer has this problem, what price would they pay?
It can be helpful to invite them into a future imagining.
“There you are feeling content and happy and fulfilled. Imagine that you’re that person now. No depression or disillusion. No more striving to reach some goal or other. Just settled and content without needing to achieve something. What discomforting feelings come up for you?”
Every client is different, so it is impossible to predict what their unique answer may be. But these two questions will reveal why keeping the problem makes sense.
Perhaps they notice a sense of panic from not striving to achieve something. They notice that they’ve always felt the need to do well in order to try and win their parents’ approval and attention. Yet that approval never came.
To stop striving for that external goal feels like giving up on the thing they most want – parental love and praise.
“If I allow myself to relax and feel fulfilled, then I’ll be giving up on the thing I most want – the praise and attention of Mum and Dad.”
Likewise: “If I allow myself to accept that Mum and Dad are not going to give me the love and praise I most want, I don’t know how I’d deal with the grief of it.”
Each of these problems feels heavier for the client than the problem they came with. They’d rather have this problem than those ones.
On top of that, there is likely the double bind that comes with conditional love. “If I do XYZ then you’ll love me. But I don’t want to be loved for what I achieve. I want to be loved for ME!!”
The choice of not getting love, or only getting it for external achievements is a lousy deal. So the treadmill continues.
Once we take the stance that the client’s problem makes sense, we can reach the target learning more quickly.
Once we have the target learning that is reproducing their problem, we can create experiences of prediction error.
For instance, we might use imaginal work in order to trigger memory reconsolidation. However, imaginal work will only bring results if it disconfirms the target learning. Otherwise, it is at best a pleasant dream state.
In this case, we would focus on their unmet need for unconditional love. This could be accomplished using my 4 step imaginal roadmap, or maybe by the Ideal Parent Figure Protocol developed by Daniel Brown.
The end result is to replace the panicked scare of the nervous system. The client no longer needs to achieve external goals to feel worthy of love and approval.
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